The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
It was a case that should have been on the front page of every major newspaper, or the opening story on every newsfeed—a case that seemed to have more akin to a bad horror flick than to reality.
In the spring of 2019, police arrested 18 people in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy for allegedly “brainwashing” children into believing they had been abused by their parents. These people—therapists, social workers, and others of the helping professions—used coercive therapeutic techniques to convince children they had been sexually abused or even forced into satanic activities. Methods included leading questions (in which the answer was presumed), electroshock, the alteration of children’s drawings to add details of an explicitly sexual nature, and even dressing up as the evil characters of fairy tales. Once separated from their parents, the children were given to foster parents in exchange for money. The scheme, reports the Guardian, involved “hundreds of thousands of Euros.” At least some of the children were then sexually abused by their new foster parents.
The investigation, code-named “Angels and Demons,” began in 2018 when police noticed an unusually high number of child-abuse allegations in the region. Details were recorded via wire-taps and hidden cameras, and the footage is horrific. In one taped session, a therapist is recorded telling a child, “Now we must do a big thing together. Do you know what? We must pretend that we are mourning. Your father does not exist as a father any more, it is as if he were dead, we must make a funeral for him.”
And the parents? Many were tried and subsequently imprisoned. The machine had been running successfully for two decades, and many of the children involved are now adults who still believe their parents perpetrated unspeakable acts against them. Gifts that parents sent to children were found in storage, never opened.
Decades of Hysteria
Sadly, the Emilia Romagna scandal may be the most organized and perhaps even the most cold-blooded in its explicit motive of money, but it is hardly the only case of mass child-seizing by local agencies, made possible by social workers, therapists, psychologists, and even medical doctors.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a hysteria later dubbed “Satanic Panic” swept the United States, Canada, the United Kindgom, and parts of Europe. At its core, the panic dealt with the unsubstantiated claims that children made against daycare workers, babysitters, or even parents of satanic ritualized abuse, in which the children were made to watch and participate in horrific rites (drinking blood, the sacrifice of animals and even babies, midnight gatherings in local cemeteries, satanic orgies, etc.). Literally hundreds of children were removed from their parents.
Many factors seem to have played a role in the leveling of such dark and weird accusations. The period in question witnessed a spike in public interest in the occult, which included the establishment in 1966 of the Church of Satan. The Manson murders and a string of other well-publicized and grisly serial killings (the Zodiak killings, the BTK killer) also sparked public panic. And the 1973 film The Exorcist was hugely popular and influential. Another important event was the 1980 book Michelle Remembers, co-written by psychologist Lawrence Padzer and his patient, Michelle Smith. In the book, Padzer recounts his therapy sessions with Smith, who tells him during one session that she wants to confide in him something serious, but can’t remember what it was. Under hypnosis, Michelle “remembers” (and then vividly recounts in the voice of a five-year-old child) enduring horrific abuse in a series of ritualized Satanic activities, into which she was first inducted by her own mother. (The book has since been discredited. No conclusive reason for Smith’s seeming fantasies have been given, but Padzer and Smith both divorced their spouses and married each other. Some speculate that the sessions were Smith’s way of spending more time with her therapist.)
A number of child-seizing cases grew out of this panic, including one in Italy later dubbed “The Devils of Lower Modena.” In this instance, the allegations began with a child named Dario, who was six at the time and came from a troubled background, bouncing between his impoverished biological family and foster family. Dario first accused his parents and older brother of sexual abuse. From there, the allegations spread—in the end, 9 people were convicted, and 16 children were removed from their parents’ homes. Pablo Trincia, a journalist and author of a book on the story, highlights that all of the children were “from deprived families living under the radar of social services” and “manipulated by officials into making accusations.” Trincia actually found Dario, now grown, who told the journalist, “I don’t know if I told the truth as there were all these social workers, they manipulate you.” The case left a trail of blood. One single mother killed herself. The priest who supposedly led groups of children in satanic rites in cemeteries died from a heart attack in his attorney’s office after learning of his prison sentence. (He was posthumously cleared of all charges.) The only evidence in the many convictions was the children’s allegations, coupled with the report of one gynecologist, even though other medical professionals disputed those claims.
In the United Kingdom, there were a multitude of similar cases. In 1990 in Rochdale, a panic began when seven-year-old Daniel Wilson told his teachers about his dreams of ghosts. In the mayhem of accusations that followed, 20 children were taken from their parents and placed in children’s homes, where they remained for anywhere from a few months up to ten years. No evidence of any satanic activities was ever found, and a number of the children recently sued the city council for negligence. In 2006, the two social workers at the center of the case were still employed by child-protective agencies.
In Orkney, an archipelago off the cost of Scotland, nine children were taken from their homes on charges of satanic ritual abuse—one small girl was dragged from the bathroom, breaking the sink to which she was clinging. The allegations seem to have begun when another young girl, who had actually suffered real sexual and physical abuse first by her father and later by a care worker, admitted to a friend that she was being abused but wouldn’t name the culprit. Social workers, mistakenly believing the perpetrators were the girl’s brothers, took them all into custody. The boys underwent “disclosure therapy” that led to the charges of abuse against the other families. A judge threw out the case immediately due to a complete lack of evidence and mismanagement by the social workers involved, and the children were returned.
In the United States, many “satanic panic” cases also sprung up, but also two sexual abuse cases devoid of any satanic component. In the small town of Jordan, Minnesota, in 1983, a trash collector and babysitter named James Rud was arrested for sexually abusing two children. In a plea deal, he claimed to be part of a vast sex-abusing ring of parents. The accusations spread like wildfire. In the end, 25 people were accused of abusing 30 children, ranging in age from 2 months to 17 years. The children were taken from their homes, put into foster care, and subjected to a battery of physical tests and interrogation. No physical evidence emerged, and the children kept insisting their parents were innocent. The overzealous chief prosecutor in the case, Kathleen Morris, was the driving force keeping the case alive, and was clearly seeking to build on her reputation for being tough on child abusers. (A local realtor told media at the time, “The County Attorney is a vindictive, power-hungry lady who has a grudge against Jordan.”) Rud later admitted in a radio interview that he had made the whole story up, and the Minnesota attorney general’s office intervened to bring the cases to a close and send the children home.
While in Jordan, an overzealous, power-hungry prosecutor was to blame, in the town of Wenatchee, Washington, it was an ambitious police detective. In 1994 and 1995, 43 adults were arrested on charges of a mind-boggling 29,726 counts of sexual abuse against 60 different children. The instigator in this case was Detective Bob Perez, whose two foster daughters were responsible for a large majority of the allegations. On one occasion, Perez and his foster daughter drove around town, accompanied by social workers taking notes, and the girl identified 22 locations where she claimed she had been abused. Many of the accused were easy targets—poor and borderline intellectually disabled. Perez himself was particularly vicious, arresting those who dared question the case on made-up charges of abuse, and carefully coaching witnesses. Eventually, most of the cases were overturned, and some four million dollars have been paid out in settlements to the wrongfully accused.
All Too Easy
In all of these horrific cases, there are some common factors that bear careful scrutiny.
First, it took very little for children to be lawfully separated from their parents. In most criminal proceedings, the accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty. In the case of child abuse, however, leaving children with an abusing parent while that parent is investigated seems—rightfully—to be a bad idea. So the children are taken during the investigation. The problem in these cases, however, was that the charges were completely false.
In the United States and much of the world, it is possible to make anonymous reports of child abuse to a child protective services agency (CPS). The CPS is required by law to investigate every report it gets, no matter how far-fetched, and no matter who did the reporting. All states in the U.S. have also passed mandatory reporting legislation, designating certain professions (doctors, teachers, psychologists, etc.) to be people positioned by their work so as to have firsthand knowledge of how children are doing. These people are obligated by law to report even the suspicion of abuse. The CPS may then choose when it is necessary to investigate further by talking to the child or visiting the child’s home.
An investigation usually begins within 24 hours of receiving the report. A social worker may visit the home of the suspected abuser, ask to speak to the child and other children, conduct a physical investigation, and, if deemed necessary, take the children into protective custody. While under normal circumstances, a court order is necessary before taking children, social workers also have the authority to take first, and ask later, if the child is deemed to be in imminent danger. A court then later affirms the rightness of the action. After that, the real investigation begins, which may culminate in a hearing or trial.
All of this, of course, is subject to abuse or mismanagement. An irate family member or neighbor, an embittered spouse in a divorce proceeding, a jilted ex-lover—all can, and do, call in “anonymous” tips in acts of revenge.
In the meantime, the numbers of children that go through “the system” in one way or another are staggering. In 2012, the United States CPS followed up on 3.2 million children. Of that number, 2.5 million were eventually declared “non-victims.” (The report isn’t clear on how many of those children were declared “non-victims” immediately, and how many were taken into custody for a time and later returned to their parents or guardians.) Of those remaining, 686,000 were deemed neglected or abused. Conor Friedersdorf broke these numbers down further in a 2014 piece in The Atlantic:
Among the victimized children, 18 percent were physically abused, 9 percent were sexually abused, and 8.5 percent were psychologically maltreated. The vast majority, 78.3 percent of victims, suffered mere “neglect” without physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. The degree and harmfulness of neglect can vary tremendously, but in many cases would seem to lend itself to interventions short of taking the child and charging the parent—an approach that is only attempted in some states—especially given how many neglect cases are due largely to poverty.
The majority of cases in 2012, some 59%, were reported by professionals who came into contact with the child over the course of their workday; nurses, doctors, teachers, bus drivers, or others—many of them “mandatory reporters”—were responsible for over half of the reports to CPS. Nonprofessionals (friends, neighbors, etc.) were responsible for 18% of reports, and “other” (anonymous, unknown) for the remaining 23%.
More recent data suggest that either CPS has become even more vigilant, child abuse rates have gone up, or something in between. In 2017, CPS received 4.1 million referrals, involving 7.5 million children. Of these, a little over half (57.6%) were “screened in,” or met the criteria for an investigation or other action by CPS. Of that number, 674,000 children were deemed to be victims of abuse or neglect. In 2017, “professionals” were also responsible for a majority of the reporting—65.7% of reports, with the highest percentage of that number (19.4%) being from education personnel.
In The Atlantic article, Friedersdorf cites Professor Paul Chill to demonstrate the ramifications of these investigations:
Removals can be terrifying experiences for children and families. Often they occur at night [when families are presumed to be home]. Parents have little or no time to prepare children for separation. The officials conducting the removal, as well as the adults supervising the placement, are usually complete strangers to the child. Children are thrust into alien environs, separated from parents, siblings and all else familiar, with little if any idea of why they have been taken there. Such experiences may not only cause “grief, terror and feelings of abandonment” but may “compromise” a child’s very “capacity to form secure attachments” and lead to other serious problems. The trauma may be magnified when the child is actually suffering abuse or neglect in the home, and in any event it is increased when reunification with loved ones does not occur quickly.
And while “removals” are supposed to be relatively rare, only for the most serious of cases, Chill went on to state that “more than 100,000 children who were removed in 2001—more than one in three—were later found not to have been maltreated at all.” Anonymous tips don’t help the situation, as a huge number of anonymous tips are completely unsubstantiated, made by people who are not trained in how to detect abuse, nosey neighbors, or even bitter spouses locked in divorce battles. One study found that nationally, only 1.5% of all reports were “both anonymous and substantiated.” The majority of anonymous reports are made against minority, poverty-stricken families.
False Memories and Leading Interrogations
Another common factor in all of the tragic cases that opened this essay is the use of what may be called “overzealous” interrogation techniques. In the Emilia Romagna case, false memories were actively planted into the children’s heads, but in many, many other cases, social workers, therapists, or others who are convinced that fault is present, mislead impressionable children.
All that it seems to take for misleading interrogations to be permitted is the cooperation of one or two individuals who are convinced a crime has occurred. In the “Angels and Demons” case, a few therapists employed by one corrupt social-services agency willfully planted the idea of abuse into children’s heads. In the “Devils of Lower Modena” case, the report of one gynecologist was all it took to separate 16 children from their families. In the Jordan, Minnesota, case, one ambitious prosecutor kept children apart from their families. And in Wenatchee, one detective actually seems to have persecuted those whose testimony didn’t line up with his foster daughter’s (later recanted) allegations of abuse.
Reporting on a more recent spate of allegations of abuse for the Guardian, Christopher Booker compared a 2015 ongoing investigation to the cases of Rochdale, Orkney, and others of the 1990s and 1980s: “What all those episodes had in common . . . was the way the cases against the adults were gradually built up on the basis of prolonged interrogation of the children by social workers, foster carers and police during the months and years after they had been removed from their families.”
Booker further describes the techniques used to influence the “memory” of a boy in Dyfed, a town in the U.K.,
. . . the entire case had sprung from an eight-year-old boy, “Jason”, who, after being taken into care when his parents split up, had been subjected over three years to 28 separate interviews, some lasting for much of a day. These had been conducted by a particularly zealous social worker who specialised in “memory work”: getting the boy to admit to having witnessed scenes of which he had no recollection.
Booker further describes how similar coercive or leading techniques had been used in other of the United Kingdom’s “satanic panic” cases, such as “rewarding the children with extravagant praise and little treats whenever they came up with the answers that were wanted.”
Numerous studies have demonstrated that for small children, such tactics work. In a book chapter entitled, “The Police Interrogation of Children and Adolescents,” Allison D. Redlich and colleagues reviewed the relevant research to determine that children in particular are very susceptible to misleading interrogation techniques. One study “found that when children were interviewed by friendly, supportive interviewers (e.g., smiled, made eye contact, sat with a relaxed posture), errors and suggestibility decreased in comparison to intimidating, non-supportive interviewers (e.g., did not try to establish rapport, minimal eye contact and smiling).” Another study found that “reinforcement [treats, praise, etc.] dramatically increased the rate of making false allegations by children ages 5 to 7 years.”
There is also the case of “false memories,” or “repressed memories”—the concept that memories can be so traumatic that they are buried deep in the mind, only to be recalled years later, usually through extensive therapy. Elizabeth Loftus, who has conducted extensive research shedding doubt on the concept of repressed memories, contends that therapists themselves have a remarkably powerful effect in planting the seeds of such thoughts in their clients’ minds. One therapist, who has had over 1,500 clients who were victims of incest, confided in Loftus that a technique she uses to help her clients “remember” is to lead with: “You know, in my experience, a lot of people who are struggling with many of the same problems you are, have often had some kind of really painful things happen to them as kids—maybe they were beaten or molested. And I wonder if anything like that ever happened to you?” Others began, “Your symptoms sound like you’ve been abused when you were a child. What can you tell me about that?” or even “You sound to me like the sort of person who must have been sexually abused. Tell me what that bastard did to you.” Repressed memories were widely acknowledged during the 1980s and 1990s, when some of these horrible instances of child-seizing occurred. Today, such memories, based originally on the work of Freud, are largely discredited. And while adults are the ones normally “remembering” a formerly “repressed” memory, the experience of therapists assuming a reality and then asking questions to elicit the responses they believe to be true certainly is not a solely adult phenomenon.
Reasons Why, and the Way Forward
How, exactly, do such horrible abuses of justice occur, wherein both children and parents are permanently traumatized?
Allan Carlson writes in Reason that the roots of the problem, at least in America, go back to the origins of “child-saving”:
[N]ew attitudes grew dominant during the early 19th century with the emergence of the “child-saving” movement. In 1825, America’s first juvenile reformatory, the New York House of Refuge, opened its doors. Setting a pattern for the next 100 years, this institution blurred the distinctions among abused, neglected, poor, and delinquent children. Children who fell into one or several of these categories could be institutionalized through court order, with the dual intent of removing real or potential delinquents from “unworthy parents” and separating them once in state custody from hardened adult criminals. As penologist Enoch Wines phrased the matter in 1880, these children “are born to [crime], brought up for it. They must be saved.” Following the infamous “Mary Ellen” case of 1875, Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children appeared in many cities. State legislatures granted these societies—known among the targeted poor as “the Cruelty”—extraordinary police powers of investigation and arrest.
Not until 1967 did the U.S. Supreme Court rule that juveniles have the same right to due process as adults, and that the legal concept of parens patriae (guardianship of the state), which had been the legal basis for many child-seizures, was murky and suspicious. Nonetheless, during the 1950s and 1960s, a wave of interest in the concept of child abuse swept the nation, with major publications like Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Good Housekeeping “running articles on ‘Parents Who Beat Children.’”
Nonetheless, Carlson argues, “emotion has triumphed.” Mandatory reporting laws, the abolishment of ages below which children are considered unreliable witnesses, and other legal changes have all combined to allow emotion, fear, and ignorance to prevail, and child-seizing by legal entities for indeterminate periods of time to continue.
So what should the future hold? One law professor argues that abolishing hotlines for child-abuse reporting is one possibility. Certainly, in cases that involve vast amounts of money, a hard look at who gets paid for what is warranted. (In the cases highlighted above, numerous people—therapists, doctors, counselors, prosecutors, law enforcement—were seeking to further their careers.) Carlson argues that we should begin by acknowledging that all research points to the fact that children are safest with their married, biological mother and father. He adds:
It is time to face up to our human imperfections and construct a new balance in child-abuse proceedings. It should focus on preventing the most serious cases of physical abuse and chronic pedophilia. It should recognize the enormous dangers inherent in bonding the imprecise sciences of psychology and sociology to relatively unbridled judicial authority. And it should pay respect to the institution of the family, the place where the vast majority of American children always will be best protected.
Such advice seems a good place to start. Only a society that respects the family as the fundamental social unit, entitled to protection by the state, is poised to truly protect the interests of both children and parents. Only a society that acknowledges that children are happiest, healthiest, and safest when raised by their married, biological parents will be hesitant to allow mass, unfounded panics and crazy social schemes to separate children from parents.
Let us aim for such a society, where the rights of families are protected.
Nicole M. King is the Managing Editor of The Natural Family.
 Chiara Bertoglio, “Italy investigates its own child abuse disaster,” MercatorNet (October 8, 2019), available at https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/italy-investigates-its-own-child-abuse-disaster/22933.
 “Italian police arrest 18 for allegedly brainwashing and selling children,” The Guardian (June 17, 2019), available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/27/italian-police-arrest-18-for-allegedly-brainwashing-and-selling-children.
 “Italian police arrest 18 for allegedly brainwashing and selling children,” The Guardian.
 Bertoglio, “Italy investigates its own child abuse disaster.”
 Aga Romano, “The history of Satanic panic in the U.S.—and why it’s not over yet,” Vox.com (October 30, 2019).
 Tristin Hopper, “How Canada tricked the world into believing murderous Satanists were everywhere,” National Post (September 5, 2017), available at https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/the-canadian-book-that-tricked-the-world-into-believing-they-were-overrun-with-satanist-murder-cults.
 Angela Giuffrida, “Italian ‘Satanic panic’ case returns to court two decades later,” The Guardian (May 23, 2019), available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/23/italian-satanic-panic-victim-hopes-to-clear-his-name-in-court.
 Paul Lewis, “‘Satanic abuse’ case families sue council for negligence,” The Guardian (January 11, 2006), available at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2006/jan/12/childrensservices.uknews.
 “The woman who could have stopped Orkney satanic abuse scandal,” BBC (September 5, 2013), available at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-23958348.
 Allan Carlson, “Family Abuse,” Reason (May 1986), available at https://reason.com/1986/05/01/family-abuse/.
 Peter Carlson, “Divided by Multiple Charges of Child Abuse, a Minnesota Town Seethes with Anger,” People (October 22, 1984), available at https://people.com/archive/divided-by-multiple-charges-of-child-abuse-a-minnesota-town-seethes-with-anger-vol-22-no-17/.
 J. Todd Foster, “Sex Case A ‘Wenatchee Witch Hunt’ Some Incidents Of Incest Were Uncovered But There’s Been No Proof Of Group Child Abuse,” The Spokesman-Review (October 22, 1995), available at https://www.spokesman.com/stories/1995/oct/22/sex-case-a-wenatchee-witch-hunt-some-incidents-of/.
 Jefferson Robbins, “Bob Perez, driving force in discredited sex abuse cases, dies,” Wenatchee World (December 19, 2013), available at https://www.wenatcheeworld.com/news/local/bob-perez-driving-force-in-discredited-sex-abuse-cases-dies/article_0425db16-0a82-562c-a51d-f8d00b162aa8.html.
 Christopher Coble, “What Happens When CPS Is Called?” FindLaw.com (March 25, 2015), available at https://blogs.findlaw.com/law_and_life/2015/03/what-happens-when-cps-is-called.html.
 Conor Friedersdorf, “In a Year, Child-Protective Services Checked Up on 3.2 Million Children,” The Atlantic (July 22, 2014), available at https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/07/in-a-year-child-protective-services-conducted-32-million-investigations/374809/.
 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau, Child Maltreatment 2017, available at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/child-maltreatment.
 Paul Chill in Friedersdorf, “In a Year, Child-Protective Services Checked Up on 3.2 Million Children.”
 Dale Margolin Cecka, “How child abuse hotlines hurt the very children they’re trying to protect,” The Washington Post (May 6, 2015), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/05/06/how-child-abuse-hotlines-hurt-the-very-children-theyre-trying-to-protect/.
 Christopher Booker, “Social workers get the story they’re after,” The Guardian (May 31, 2015), available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/11641375/Social-workers-get-the-story-theyre-after.html.
 Carter et al. (1996), in Allison D. Redlich, Melissa Silverman, Julie Chen, and Hans Steiner, “The Police Interrogation of Children and Adolescents,” in G. Daniel Lassiter, ed., Interrogations, Confessions, and Entrapment (New York: Spring, 2004), pp. 107-25.
 Garven et al. (2000), in Redlich et al., “The Police Interrogation of Children and Adolescents,” 116.
 Elizabeth Loftus, “The Reality of Repressed Memories,” American Psychologist 43 (1993): 518-37.
 Carlson, “Family Abuse.”
 Cecka, “How child abuse hotlines hurt the very children they’re trying to protect.”
 Carlson, “Family Abuse.”